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5 Questions About 'Elysium' That You Might Be Able To Answer...

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by Tambay A. Obenson
August 19, 2013 7:52 PM
17 Comments
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Director Neill Blomkamp is South African, but Elysium is not a "black film" (given this site's focus); although a reading of it could certainly expose racial allegories and metaphors within it. 

But that's not why I'm here today.

A number of questions that came to me about the film as I watched it, nagged me after I saw it recently, and I thought I'd pose 5 of those questions here, hoping that maybe you guys can answer them for me.

So without further ado (spoilers ahead if you haven't seen the movie yet), here are the 5 questions:

1 - On an "earth" (although Los Angeles is the only city represented here for much of the film) whose population is seemingly overwhelmingly comprised of Latino Americans (a nod to *fears* amongst many, especially on the right, that this country's population will soon one day be dominated by central and South Americans), why is our "messiah" ("The One" we could call him; we've seen him in many forms in past films), still very much Anglo-American? Earth, as it's presented to us in the film, apocalyptic, is very clearly predominantly populated with people of color, with very few white faces scattered about (meanwhile, Elysium's population comprises almost entirely of white people); but yet, "The One" who's chosen to save earth, and the rest of us all, has to be from that tiny white minority that's left on earth. There's even a scene during which Matt Damon's enabler and rebel leader on earth (played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura) scolds his fellow rebels for not having the balls to take the assignment that our white hero, Damon, eventually embraces. Essentially, suggesting that they're all a bunch of chickens, while the white man has the courage and fortitude they lack. Couldn't one of them have stepped up and been The Man for a change?

2 - Why would earth's inhabitants insist on breaching Elysium airspace, despite the fact that, each time they attempt to do so, they are shot down in space before ever reaching Elysium, with countless fatalities? I'd understand if they had a 50/50 chance of making the trip alive, or even a 70/30 shot. But, based on the information we are provided in the film, they have really almost no chance of surviving a trip to Elysium. There's a 99.9% chance that they'd either be shot down and killed, or will be immediately apprehended by Elysium's efficient robot army, once they land, and will either be killed, or sent right back to earth. I understand survival, but given those odds, I'd rather take my chances on earth, despite the dystopia it's apparently become, than risk death.

3 - Why did Max (Matt Damon) even attempt to dislodge the unintentional jam that was holding up the assembly line at the plant where he worked, knowing fully well what would happen if he did - and that is, being blasted with a fatal dose of radiation? I know, I know... his boss threatened to fire him if he didn't do it. But, yo, I'd rather lose my job (despite how dilapidated earth's surface was) than risk being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation that would kill me in a matter of days. At least, I'd still be alive, yes, without a job, but I'd be alive, and with options. In death, I have none. If Blomkamp had painted the character as suicidal, I'd understand. But he's far from that. Obviously, the main reason Blomkamp scripted that entire sequence of the story was to make Max's decision to agree to take on what is effectively a suicide mission, a lot easier. He was going to die in 5 days; what did he have to lose by trying to breach Elysium's borders? If he wasn't successful, well, he'd die anyway. But, surely this particular motivation could've been handled much more credibly and intelligently. I feel like a Neil Blomkamp film (despite this being his second feature), should be smarter and more inventive than that. This just seemed like an all-too convenient, and too easy device, to help position Max for what was to come next. But, realistically, it didn't make sense to me that the character would do what he did.

4 - Why couldn't Kruger (Sharlto Copley in a screeching, over-the-top performance) and his henchmen easily identify Max, as they searched for him from their vessel in the air (with Max on the ground, running), when he hid under a push-cart with a few pigs inside of it? They flew over the push-cart, narrowed into his signal, but couldn't verify it was him underneath the push-cart, because of interference from the pigs inside the cart that Max was hiding under. And so they flew away, assuming he'd gotten away. Given all the technological advances made, as presented in this future earth (like shields that can deflect bullets and other kinds of firepower, and high-powered lazer beams, fully functioning robots that act as soldiers, machines that cure just about every disease you can think of in a matter of seconds, and also the fact that humans beings are making casual trips between a space city, and earth, and much more)... given all of those advances in technology, so much that it seems as if just about any and everything is possible, I don't understand how hiding under a push-cart with a few pigs on top of it, are all that stood between Kruger's vessel's scanners identifying Max (or not) in that crucial scene.

5 - The title, "Elysium." Can Blomkamp be any more literal or unsubtle? Why not just call it Heaven, or Paradise, or Utopia, or Bliss? And unfortunately, that lack of nuance carries throughout the entire film itself - especially in the acting (aside from Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and the aforementioned Sharlto Copley gave what I felt were truly bizarre performances, as if they rode roughshod over Blomkamp's directing and did their own thing; or it could be that they were badly-conceived characters); and also the heavy-handed delivery of Blomkamp's message, and unrelenting soundtrack.

I really, truly do appreciate Blomkamp's attempts to tackle topical issues in his films, but I'm not sure that he's yet able to properly incorporate action into the story/message seamlessly, so it serves rather than dominates. All the social, political and cultural relevance feels more like a tease and it all takes a back seat to bludgeoning action set pieces and a lot of noise.

I'd say that I actually liked District 9, his first film (despite the problems I had with that film) over Elysium.

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17 Comments

  • Rip Studwell | February 6, 2014 10:48 AMReply

    1. In the beginning, Matt Damon's character was a lowly convict factory worker whom made the very instruments of his oppression in a dank and dirty factory where he irradiated the robots he bolted together to possibly harden some sort of coating or remove contaminants, possibly both. The main premise of the factory door was that he knew well of the radiation happening in the containment vessel, hence his reluctance to go inside when the skid was stuck.

    His foreman, having none of his shenanigans demanded that Matt's character go inside and remedy the situation or pack up and leave and he would find someone who would. Matt's character however did not want to lose his job and he figured it was a simple "kick the skidsteer palate" and jump out of the way when the door closed. Unfortunately, the door system, by at this point being at least 160 years old in the movie universe, judging by the fact that it is running some Armadyne OS over DOS on a green monochrome screen probably has had its safety interlocks defeated to speed up production, or have been broken since, and nobody really bothered to check. Therefore when he finally frees the palate from the door, it swiftly locks, the machine, detected organic matter, but due to the safety system being defeated, cooked him anyway. As everyone looked on in horror as this poor soul was cooked, the foreman simply called for an extraction by the medical robot, where he was dragged to the medical bay and signed off to receive pain medication as he received a lethal dose of radiation. Lying on the medical bed Armadyne CEO Carlyle simply came to see why production has stopped and simply told the foreman to shoo Matt's character home to die so he doesn't have to "change the sheets" on the dilapidated medical bay table. Knowing now matt's character has only a couple days to live he visits spider to ask a favor, spider, having none of his shenanigans shows him the door because everyone who has come to him has made promises and never followed through for their ticket to elysium, however, matt's character ends up grabbing a weapon and shows spider he's got nothing to lose because he's dead anyway, spider sees the genuine desperation and commends him on taking such a suicide mission to steal info from an elysium citizen anyway. However, matt's character, seeing the fact that the only reason he was cooked was due to armadyne not giving a single hoot about the safety systems, he picks Carlyle as his main target, as a sort of revenge subplot.

    2. The same reason Mexican's try to enter the USA, to find work, to heal the sick, to find salvation and a new life.

    3. Max would have been sent back to jail if he were to lose his job, and this was his sort of probation and knowing that there is no leeway due to his parole officer being essentially a robot. He would rather risk his life for the freedom he has then be put back behind bars.

    4. The pigs interfered with the identification system long enough for Kruger being the weird South African Mercenary to just give up and keep flying, Its the human aspect of the movie, he wanted to follow Max around a bit to see what his plan was, hence why he followed him trying to attack Carlyle, then to Frey's house so they could use his friend as a bargaining chip.

    5. I would have called it "2154" or something edgy like "Armadyne Legacy" I don't know, its a freaking movie, call it something catchy.

    With this review being spotty, in my opinion, did you pay attention to the movie the first time? maybe watch it two or three times over and actively look at the scenery, hell in the first couple of scenes there's even a real world website and company on the keypad in the factory scene, lots of dubstep that is recognizable if you're a fan of the genre, a few interesting scenes with the laptops when they're hacking carlyle's brain and if you pay attention to the code when carlyle is writing the reboot sequence, there's lots of familiar routines for ordinary processors of our day, some other cool things to note are the communication devices delacourt and kruger use, they seem to be monochrome OLED screens and are retro when you take looks at all the other computers in elysium, spider's workshop, etc.

    Neill Blomkamp is a genius when it comes to putting subtle nods in his movies and they're all really good for those people who like to actually enjoy the eye candy in a movie and pick out interesting things.

    Hopefully if you watch it a couple times you'll find cool stuff I missed even.

  • Icorigin | January 29, 2014 8:36 PMReply

    The best part, for me, about Elysium, was near the end of the movie, when the little girl was put into the healing machine, which analyzed exactly what was terminally wrong with her, and then precisely did what it took to correct the would-have-been fatal abnormality.
    I normally do not shake with emotion during any movie, nor do my eyes well up with tears, but when I saw that scene, such happened. I got a similar reaction when I saw the rolloff of names of deceased Jews during Schindler's List, and when the arm of Christ reached down to Ben-Hur with a flask of water enabling Ben-Hur to revive and continue.

  • My answer | January 28, 2014 3:20 AMReply

    #3: It is natural that people make irrational decisions under a high pressure.

    For a more convincing flow, Max could have used a piece of metal near-by to keep the door propped open. Then another accident could knock that piece off the place to get him locked in the radiation room.

  • Kenny Ketchum | January 18, 2014 6:41 AMReply

    Question 1: Why is our "messiah" ("The One" we could call him; we've seen him in many forms in past films), still very much Anglo-American?

    Answer: As stated Elysium are "white", which mean's the Messiah, would have to come from their "chosen line", etc. Just as Christ was Messiah, and a Jew, so would be "one of the chosen" who it would seem, mainly inhabited earth. When Jesus came up out of the lands he was raised in, the Jewish leaders all said, "This man is from there? Can anything good come from that place?"

    Question 2: Why would earth's inhabitants insist on breaching, despite a 99.9 chance of being killed?

    Answer: We see why in the very beginning, the people going, are mothers hoping to make it through to save their offspring. They are dying, so the mothers are willing risk their own lives, to save the life of their child.

    Question 3: Why did Max (Matt Damon) even attempt to dislodge the unintentional jam?

    Answer: Because he was willing to risk his life to keep his job, which at the time was his only way at keeping his job. He thought he could manage to pull it off, he's a risk taker at all times, as is also shown plainly from beginning to end.

    Question 4: Why didn't Kruger easily identify max under the cart?

    Answer, to show that even with technology, and the incidence of error being reduced, Kruger was always in such a great hurry to rush into things. He was always rushing to this or that, all based upon primitive instinct, that's why he was unable to wait it out a bit longer and he rashly and like the "fool" rushed on into error after error after error.

    Question 5: Why the name Elysium, why so unsubtle and literal?(since the title means, the land of ideal happiness, etc, etc,)

    Answer: It could be interpreted in ancient Semitic//Chaldean as "Year of God." OR "God of the year". The movie makes note of years, times, places, healing, etc, etc, and shows a picture of the earth eclipsed. The name, perhaps can be interpreted as such, "year of our lord", perhaps maybe. Since the movie does revolve around certain fairy tales//allegories, myths and bilingual challenges, it would seem the riddle to the title could be interpreted as such; "God of the year".

  • SuperHuman | November 19, 2013 4:49 PMReply

    its a movie

  • john smith | October 12, 2013 11:57 PMReply

    ELYSIUM is as far as to
    The very nearest room,
    If in that room a friend await
    Felicity or doom.

    What fortitude the soul contains, 5
    That it can so endure
    The accent of a coming foot,
    The opening of a door!

    Emily Dickinson

  • Passort | September 12, 2013 10:23 PMReply

    I agree with your observations. This story was a bit pedestrian but it had a large budget which masked a lot it's simple plot.

  • HanaBey | September 11, 2013 1:08 AMReply

    An answer to your question:
    2. Apparently it was quite easy to land on Elysium. When Moura's character follows Max to Elysium there doesn't seem to be any defense save a noise that alerted the deck that an unauthorized craft was entering. Also the main reason people would go there is for the health benefits. I can totally see why a mother would brave air and space and guns to save her child from dying, especially since the technology exists.

    I have my own questions:
    1. was why was it so easy to enter a house and use the healing beds after crash landing in the middle of the outpost? And why would the mother attempt to heal her child without the genetic ID that she knew was necessary in order to operate the machine?

    2. there seemed to be only like 10 medical ships on the Elysium outpost which were summarily dispatched to Earth when they rebooted Elysium. Each ship had maybe 12 beds. How is this enough to heal Earth's population that presumably has many illnesses. Mayhem would ensue when people clamor to get to those ships. I wasn't hopeful I was terrified when I saw that.

    3. They couldn't take off Max's shirt before they installed the exo-suit? That right there had me cringing through the entire film. He had to wear this filthy blood soaked shirt which was bolted on. BTW the healing time seemed mad quick, for having a computerized exo skeleton screwed into every major bone in his body.

  • Peggy | August 21, 2013 3:00 AMReply

    His first movie was incredibly racist so the fact that he's populated the world with only hispanics and has a white man leading them doesn't surprise me at all. I'm just glad he didn't have any black women whores screwing aliens or animals this time. Or did he?

  • Celluloidread | August 20, 2013 10:23 PMReply

    I was entertained by the film, but also felt that the story and the world depicted were problematic. Leaving aside issues of character development and motivation, I think many of the items discussed in the post are the result of the screenplay coupled with, what seems to be a chronic illness, of filmmakers working with giant budgets tending to overlook the basic questions of the story that come to mind when the audience is watching the film. And I think it takes a very talented storyteller or a storyteller with decades of experience to constantly ask those questions. I found two aspects of the film the most troubling: one, even though Los Angeles has obviously become an over-populated city of mostly non-white folks, there was also a blatant absence of black people, and two, the ending raises so many questions in terms of feasibility and practicality, it was difficult to even emotionally appreciate the sense of hope that the film was attempting to convey to the world's populace. But, I never expect much of anything from Hollywood, tent-poles or otherwise, so I wasn't completely disappointed. Better to attempt something a little different than recycle another super hero movie.

  • Everette | August 20, 2013 5:44 AMReply

    To be quite simple, question #2 apparently answers question #1. Who the hell was going to be crazy enough to take on the suicide mission? "Oh, that guy."

  • Donella | August 19, 2013 10:38 PMReply

    I do know that when Spike Lee directed Jodie Foster's ice queen persona in Inside Man, her scenes opposite Denzel and the rest of the boys rocked. Even when Lee allowed Foster to improvise, she played her role well and moved within the character's confines. Disconnect with her characters hasn't really come up before, so I'm thinking... slips in direction and writing.

  • Small Town Loner | August 19, 2013 9:48 PMReply

    "I'd say that I actually liked District 9, his first film (despite the problems I had with that film) over Elysium."

    But they're the same movie beat by beat...

    Lead character gets sick whilst working his job...
    (D9: sprayed with space goop, oops - space fuel [Wrong plot-holed scifi movie]/Elysium: radiation)

    where the only salvation for his ailment is from a ship sitting high atop the sky.
    (D9: Prawn spaceship/Elysium: Versace tanning beds)

    To get passage up there, both protagonists have to perform an illegal job, specifically a robbery which involves the company he works for in some capacity.
    (D9: Stealing the space fuel/Elysium: getting his boss's brain files

    Both movies have a child/parent subplot...
    (D9: Father-son Prawn/Elysium: Alice Braga and the little girl)

    contain a bat-shit crazy military man hunting down our hero...
    (D9: Colonel Venter/Elysium: Krueger)
    ...a spacecraft crashing
    and a self-sacrifice from the protagonist for the greater good of the parent-child relationship and for the world at large.
    (D9: Vicus becomes a Prawn/Elysium: Max dies from the computer data extracted from his braing)

    I know Aimee Mann once said that she's just writing one song within her over-and-over, but is every Aimee Mann song merely "Voices Carry 2 - Electric Boogaloo?"

    And based on the way the planet looks and the weapons the characters use, you can tell that he still wants to do that "Halo" movie.

  • NUUT | August 19, 2013 9:01 PMReply

    1. That part I'm sure was politics and budget of the film. In District 9, it was OK to use a no-name actor as the lead since the budget was "only" $30mil. But for a $100 mil budget film, the lead had to be a star. Granted, I understand that in a place full of Latin Americans, it'd make more sense that the "One" would be one of them - but I think Matt Damon was being portrayed as Latin American - at least his mom was... Bad choice in casting... then again, I had a lot of problems with similar points you addressed (over the top acting, flawed writing, unmotivated actions for characters, etc)

    2. The whole Elysium defense system was flawed. If you're going to have an elite "planet" with immigrants flying in randomly, your "only" defense is from ONE man on Earth with a rocket launcher??? Not even a forcefield? You have enough technology to terraform a space station in the middle of the galaxy, but can't have at least a "gate" to prevent people from coming in unannounced??? Yeah, flawed...

    3. Yup, you're very right on this. This was very lazy. So many other ways it could be done easier.

    4. Yup. But passable though...

    5. I liked the title. Wasn't that bad. Sure, the obvious reference to the Elysian fields, Blessed Islands, Paradise, etc. But at the same time you could look at the afterlife aspect of it as well. A foreshadowing of the hero dying at the end in paradise... Also, this might be pushing it, but maybe it also referenced Champs Elysees? Hey it's expensive, it's beautiful, pristine...and-- and-- Jodie Foster had a FRENCH accent... coincidence? Maybe...

  • sthn | August 19, 2013 8:04 PMReply

    Come on tambay! 'Might be able answer...?'

  • KC | August 19, 2013 9:36 PM

    3. I interpreted this part as being about working conditions many people face on the job. Dangerous tasks are asked of workers all over the world and the worker does it or not be able to feed their family.

    There was also a line where deadly force had not been used against the civilian population and represented an overreach for Foster's character.

    Def not a perfect film but I can appreciate a movie that tries to go for complex themes.

  • sthn | August 19, 2013 9:17 PM

    That's it my man!

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